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The Thing (1982 film)

A 1982 science fiction-horror film directed by John Carpenter.

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John Carpenter's The Thing is funny, but not enough

  • Jun 7, 2012

Apparently John Carpenter saw Alien and thought, "Hey, I can do that, and I can toss in bits of The Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well." It is unfortunate that he didn't do it as well. John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) has none of the impact of those classics.

The story is the now-familiar one of scientific researchers at a remote facility in the Arctic who must defeat an alien before it can wipe out humanity. Almost from the very start of John Carpenter's The Thing, the characters know that an alien is among them. There is none of the dread that could have come from their gradually becoming aware of the direness of their situation. Instead of trying for suspense, the movie settles for sub-par gore.

A clue that the movie's imagery is going to be so inept that it will be more funny than scary comes early. A scientist shows us a computer simulation of the process by which extraterrestrial blood cells can take over ours, turning us into aliens. The simulation looks like a slide show about the history of video games shown in reverse. Watching the colored triangle that represents alien blood become the white dot that represents our blood is like watching Galaxian devolve into Pong.

John Carpenter's The Thing doesn't even get the weather right. Kurt Russell's character keeps telling us that it is cold outside. Sometimes it is 40 degrees below zero and others it is 100 degrees below. That's cold enough to turn the vapor in human lungs to ice, but no one wears a breathing mask.

Only one of the characters wears a face mask. Russell and the rest amble around in this Arctic icebox with their faces constantly exposed. "Amble" is the right word because they are never in a hurry to get out of the supposed cold.

Much of the time they don't even zip their jackets. This isn't the macho heroes showing disregard for the elements but the filmmakers showing disregard for logic. Weather compounds the dangers the characters face in the 1951 version of The Thing from Another World directed by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks, but here the clumsiness with which the climate is presented compounds only the movie's many flaws.

Gone is the wind. In John Carpenter's version, a breeze blows only in two short scenes. Other times the characters refer to how windy it is and how this is going to jeopardize their travel and their survival, but the alleged winds are enough only to barely move the little bits of fur on the collars that they don't even bother to button.

The wind in the 1951 version blows constantly. We hear it in the background of almost every scene and see its effects everywhere. Snow swirls, doors bang open unexpectedly and characters have to fight against it with each step. The wind evokes dread because its omnipresence reminds us that our heroes are in grave danger even if they defeat the alien invader.

In the 1951 version, that invader is dangerous. It is smart and relentless. Its anatomy is uniquely suited to make it a threat to all life on Earth. It needs just a little time and some blood to create an army of itself so vast it will overrun the planet in just days. It will wipe out both us and every trace that we were ever here.

The alien in John Carpenter's The Thing is just an excuse for some visual effects lifted directly from Alien, winner of the 1979 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. If you've seen Alien, you'll know just what is going to happen when Richard Dysart (the grandfatherly partner in the L.A. Law firm on television) puts his hands in a dead body. But if you've seen Alien, you've seen such imagery done much better.

Supposedly the invader in John Carpenter's The Thing can mimic any life form. It can impersonate people and sneak among us while it replaces us with parts of itself. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) tells that story with shadows, atmosphere and suggestion. It is memorable and chilling. John Carpenter's The Thing tries to do it with gore and the effect is unimpressive, although sometimes laughable.

Watching this movie's alien go through its transformations is like watching a Rube Goldberg contraption try to make itself out of fake blood, bones and flesh. It takes a lot of twists but it doesn't work.

What we get is a mash of influences so cluttered and clumsy that the thing always looks like spaghetti trying to turn itself into a dog or a person. The process takes so long that everyone almost always has enough time to run and get a flamethrower to incinerate it. They don't, apparently because the studio did not want them to end the movie before viewers had time to finish their popcorn.

By the time a disembodied alien/human head pulls itself towards a desk by a long red tongue, my only interest was in how much licorice they needed to create the effect. Then the head turns itself upside down and scampers away on spider legs that have sprung from its skull and I giggled while thinking, "It's hard to believe the red licorice was scarier."

The substandard effects would be enough to doom the movie, but we also have exceptionally stupid main characters. They see the alien's first transformation so they know immediately what they are up against. But instead of sticking together so they can see that no one is infected, they repeatedly go off in different directions. When they return they must look at each other suspiciously and wonder who has been infected by the alien.

After many such suspicious looks, Kurt Russell proclaims that he is in charge because, "I know I'm human." But the other characters can know no such thing. They accept his leadership not because it makes sense to do so but because he is the movie's star. The others might not know about self-preservation, but they are experts on Hollywood hierarchy.

Russell and company set off many explosions to kill the alien. These send countless pieces of the thing flying off in all directions. Are we in the audience the only ones who remember Russell's warning that any piece can make itself into an entire alien?

After seeding the landscape with the raw material for a potential army of aliens, Russell's crew sets about destroying their compound. They know that the alien is trying to escape and they've seen at least one of the things running away from the compound. Destroying the place now is too little much too late.

The superior 1951 version of The Thing has an irritating reporter as part of the story. Carpenter was wise to get rid of him. The earlier movie also has a love story that Carpenter ditched as well. There are no women in this version, except for the female voice of the computer that beats Russell at chess. He calls it a "cheating b-tch." The casual misogyny played for laughs is our first warning not to expect fully developed characters who are blessed with wisdom or reason.

Another comes when the resident scientific genius has figured out the nature of the threat. He doesn't warn his friends and work with them to develop a plan. Instead he inexplicably trashes his office while screaming in what looks like an insane tantrum. Before his colleagues can lock him up, he makes one last effort to hold them at bay: He throws his gun at them.

At the end of Carpenter's movie, Russell and one of his colleagues sit alone waiting to freeze to death. "Let's see what happens," Russell says, but nothing does because the closing credits roll. The problem is that little of interest happens in the seeming hours and hours before the final credits.

Some critics have suggested that John Carpenter's The Thing did poorly at the box office because it was overshadowed by ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. If so, it is not the marketing department's fault. The blame belongs entirely to the guy whose hubris led him to put his name in the title of John Carpenter's The Thing.
John Carpenter's The Thing is funny, but not enough

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June 07, 2012
I enjoyed this one back in the day. I need to revisit. This is a good re-issue of a concept imho. Thanks, Peter!
More The Thing (1982 film) reviews
review by . August 10, 2013
posted in Movie Hype
My first encounter with John Carpenter's The Thing was back around November of 2001, where I only saw a snippet of the movie on TNT. Just my luck, I tuned in at one of the most gruesome scenes in the movie. Even at the age of 14, when I was more seasoned to creepy films, still found it too disturbing to follow through the rest of the movie, and just tuned in to something else (probably The Simpsons). I wouldn't come into contact with this movie for another eight years.      …
Quick Tip by . March 16, 2013
posted in Movie Hype
John Carpenter's The Thing is one of my absolute favorite horror movies.  Even though the movie came out in 1982, Rob Bottin's special effects still look absolutely disgusting and amazing all at once.  Though it's not just stellar animatronic puppets and other effects that make this movie such a masterpiece, there's such strong senses of dread, tension, and isolation in this movie that'll at least give you the chills when you're watching it.      …
review by . November 06, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
I'm at that stage in my movie watching days where horror films have no affect on me anymore. I've seen them all: Halloween(1978), Rob Zombie's Halloween, Friday the 13th(1980), Friday the 13th(2009). It just seems that horror doesn't scare me any more like it use to, at least that's what I thought until I saw John Carpenter's "The Thing".               The Thing is not like most Sci-Fi horror, most Sc-Fi horror films use eerie space ships …
review by . November 14, 2008
The Thing (1982)
One of the most creative and disgusting horror films of our time, John Carpenter's `The Thing' has held its own ground through more than two decades, still producing the loud cry of "Euewwwwwwww" from both new viewers and old. Never has there been a slimier, stealthier, more appalling evil that what comes out of the snow in this spectacular film.     The film opens at an American camp in Antarctica, when the men's routine day is interrupted by a crazy Norwegian flying into their …
review by . February 09, 2009
One of my favorite sci-fi, and horror films has always been Ridley Scott's 1979 classic Alien, and for a while now I've been looking for a film that would make for a good late-night double feature (excluding the sequel, Aliens). Of course, when I searched I mostly found rip-offs that couldn't hold a candle to the levels intrigue, and suspense set by Scott's film; in fact, most of them were simple rip-offs of Alien.     I finally found this version of The Thing after having liked …
review by . October 30, 2004
posted in Movie Hype
This movie came out when I was born, and I saw it few years later, and watching it recently I have enjoyed it for the second time, even more so! The speical effects are amazing! This movie can stand the test of time, because not once during the movie have I thought that anything looked fake, plastic or not believable.     Kurt Russel and the crew are great, stranded on a work site in Antarctica, when the weather become cold, they have no outside contact and they discover an alien …
review by . December 14, 2003
posted in Movie Hype
An alien theme plays as a helicopter flies across the South Pole landscape. Below it is a wolf dog, running through the snow. Apparently, the helicopter is chasing the dog. The pilot emerges with a gun and begins firing at the creature as it runs towards a base of American scientists.Soon, this doesn't sound as strange as it seems. Kurt Russell stars as the American scientist who learns the secret of the creature: it's over 100,000 years old, frozen beneath the ice, and pissed off. We also learn …
review by . September 27, 2000
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: .     Cons: ..     I can accept space ships crashing into the Arctic. I can accept strange, weird creatures that invade your body. I can accept the fact that once these creatures invade you, no one can tell you aren't the you that you were but now you are a them. I can accept exploding bodies that split in half and expel some multi-legged slime ball thing that invades your camp.      I can accept the fact that once your body splits …
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Director John Carpenter and special makeup effects master Rob Bottin teamed up for this 1982 remake of the 1951 science fiction classicThe Thing from Another World, and the result is a mixed blessing. It's got moments of highly effective terror and spine-tingling suspense, but it's mostly a showcase for some of the goriest and most horrifically grotesque makeup effects ever created for a movie. With such highlights as a dog that splits open and blossoms into something indescribably gruesome, this is the kind of movie for die-hard horror fans and anyone who slows down to stare at fatal traffic accidents. On those terms, however, it's hard not to be impressed by the movie's wild and wacky freak show. It all begins when scientists at an arctic research station discover an alien spacecraft under the thick ice, and thaw out the alien body found aboard. What they don't know is that the alien can assume any human form, and before long the scientists can't tell who's real and who's a deadly alien threat. Kurt Russell leads the battle against the terrifying intruder, and the supporting cast includes Richard Masur, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, and Wilford Brimley. They're all playing standard characters who are neglected by the mechanistic screenplay (based on the classic sci-fi story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell), but Carpenter's emphasis is clearly on the gross-out effects and escalating tension. If you've got the ...
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Director: John Carpenter
Genre: Horror, Sci-Fi
Release Date: 1982
MPAA Rating: R
DVD Release Date: September 9, 1998 ; October 26, 2004
Runtime: 108 minutes
Studio: Universal Studios, Universal Pictures
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